Part I: Partnering with ESOL Educators for Equity
What principals need to know about what ESOL teachers do
What I find from my principals when I'm working with colleagues or other groups of principals is how little they know about what ESOL is. There is a cloud of mystery around what the ESOL teacher is doing. How do they serve students? What is the role of an ESOL teacher? I find that there's a lot of difference in opinion. And I find that many of our principals do not understand that they're the ones that have that expertise in teaching the language. We get the differentiation part. We get, "Yes, this is a professional who is trained to work with students who don't speak English, and they're going to go in and make it so they can learn the content."
But we oftentimes overlook the fact that the ESOL teacher must provide that structured systematic English language development instruction. They're the language teacher. It's funny how in high school we recognize, "Oh, that's the Spanish teacher." "Oh, that's the Chinese teacher." "There's the one teaching French or Japanese." Yeah, the ESOL teacher is the one teaching the English. But it's sort of a challenge for some leaders to get their heads around the fact that, "Oh, oh yes, yes, this is my language teacher."
But then once we understand they're the language teacher, what do we mean by the language? Oh, it's far beyond vocabulary. So yes, of course we're attuned to teaching vocabulary and especially the more technical and specific vocabulary that our language learners need to access grade-level content, but it's so much more than that about the language. It's also the grammar. It's language forms and conventions. How do I make sure that my students can use that present perfect progressive and know how to use it and know what it is?
It's also, "How do I make sure that my English learners can command language at the level of discourse, they're able to command relative clauses and they're able to understand passive voice and more sophisticated language that manifests itself in the academic areas?" What about that? Who's teaching them that? That's what your ESOL teacher can do when you know how to leverage their expertise.
I think also leaders are sort of in the dark around how we can use different models in ESOL to create equitable conditions for our students. Quite frankly, we are looking at making sure that our students are learning English through math, learning English through reading, they're learning English in science, and they're learning English in social studies. How do schools make that happen? With the ESOL teachers that you have given to you.
It requires a certain vision and a certain commitment to engaging our teachers around co-constructing that vision. If you do that in a professional learning community, you'll end up with an equitable model for English learners to achieve fluency in English and competency in academic content at the same time.>
Building a model that where all ELLs have equitable access to grade-level content
Previously, and I think this may resound with many principals, the ESOL teacher is seen as one that has an equal number of students on his or her caseload. So, for example, if I'm an ESOL teacher and I have, let's say, 300 ESOL students in a building and, let's say I have 6 ESOL teachers. So we would divide 300 by 6. Each of us would get 50 students regardless of what grade level.
We would have an equal number of ESOL students on that grade level, and the ESOL teacher would decide, okay, how with my 50 students am I going to meet the need for my 50. Am I going to pull them out? Am I going to plug in? What is the method that I'm going to give students to learn the language and differentiate?
And I, as that ESOL teacher of these 50 students, I'm deciding how to do that. The challenge is so is teacher B, so is teacher C, so is teacher E. What happens in that case then is you introduce variants into your model. So you're going to have different teachers deciding to provide different models of instruction, different teachers using different materials to present access to the curriculum or to create access to the curriculum.
You're going to have different amounts of time provided for ESOL instruction. So your variables then become teacher-driven in terms of the variable of time, the variable of what curriculum are we using, and the variable of which method are we using.
My question is, "How do we create the equitable conditions for our students to thrive both linguistically and through their ability to access grade-level content?" That was the vision. And I asked my teachers, "What does it take to create that?"
Developing a new ELD model through teacher leadership
We have a station rotation model in place at the school that was co-constructed by our teachers and our teacher leaders.
I think one of the hardest things to do is to get ESOL people and reading people in the same room talking the same language. I like to see reading as our first cousins. So I'm in the language acquisition business, but you have reading experts over here where we have some commonalities in our work.
I have an ESOL background. I took my assistant principal. She has a reading background. We took reading teachers. We took ESOL teachers. We took our scholarly books, things that were important to me because I have expertise in this field. We challenge our reading leaders bring your scholarly materials. We went outside and retreated, spread everything out.
And we had this scholarly exchange back and forth. "Well, we do this. You do that. How do you do...?" -- and the outgrowth of that became well, wait a minute, we can co-exist, and what we're going to do then -- let's take reading as an example -- is we're going to teach in stations and we're going to make sure that students have an opportunity to collaborate around the content using academic English. There's a station for that because we're going to bring in work by Jeff Zwiers and academic conversations to make that happen.
We're also going to explicitly teach English. And we're going to have a station that's focused on what I would call content-based language teaching where if I'm in mathematics and the math teacher is focused on, let's say single-digit addition, what specifically is the language students need to know in order to access that particular skill? We're going to incorporate language objectives there. And I'm going to charge my ESOL teachers with designing the lesson for that station to happen.
I'm going to charge my ESOL teachers with running that academic conversation station because I'm one of you and I know you have this training in your background because I have it too. And so that became a way to bring ESOL right into the fold along with what's happening with reading, along with what's happening in mathematics, and this year we're adding the social studies and the science where we've created station teaching in the school based on the research that we did.
We did a lot of research and we pulled our research from Honigsfeld and Dove around collaboration and co-teaching. We pulled our research by TESOL Six Principles for Exemplary Teaching for ELs. We pulled of course on research with SIOP, Debra Short et al, around how to make the differentiation visible for our kids. We pulled a lot of -- pulled on research from WIDA.
And I think for us it was just getting at the table as like, “Look, I'm a scholarly nerd, so are you, bring your stuff. I'm going to bring my stuff. Let's have the conversation.” That was breakthrough for us. And we decided of all the models by then, by the time we had this scholarly conversation, the school had been, this was in year two -- we had been studying various co-teaching models as a professional learning community. You don't jump to where we are now overnight.
It takes phases. So we studied different models, and we all had a sense of well, you know what, station teaching might be the best one for our particular context. We had all the rationale why. So we developed that.
This is a teacher-driven effort. Our teachers co-constructed this and it's being led and developed by our teachers and teacher leaders. We're very proud of that.
The importance of ESOL team meetings with school leadership
I think it's really important for an ESOL department in any school to have regular two-way communication with a principal. How can I put in place the supports for this ESOL team to be able to grow deeply as experts in their field so I can really maximize what they can do for my English learners, so that they can build their practice as the ELL experts that I expect them to be?
So for example, we learn deeply around how do we write language objectives, what does that look like? What does that look like for those of you who serve kindergarten, what does that look like for those of you who serve fifth grade. How do we write language objectives? What are the components? How do we design assessments that will allow us to measure the language objectives that we put in place?
What is our approach to co-planning with our grade-level content, our grade-level colleagues? How do I learn deeply around the WIDA Interpretive Rubrics so that I can then use that to design and score my own language-based assessments? So I expect them to be highly competent ELD experts that know how to create these equitable conditions that we require at our school, but I also expect them to share their practice with each other insofar as how they are collaborating with their grade-level colleagues.
How (and why) to support collaboration and PLCs for ELL educators
What we've done in this equitable model was to take two ESOL teachers and assign them to each grade level regardless of the number of students. I'm not interested in the number of students you have. Why? Because your role is to create equitable conditions in that classroom for language learning to occur within the context of the classroom.
So your approach then is less pulling out and less doing something to them. It's more about how do I create these two learning stations where ESOL happens so that the stations differentiate academic content and also allow them to learn the academic English they need.
To achieve that, you have to be an ESOL professional learning community in your own right, but guess what, ESOL teachers, you are also part of the grade-level professional learning community to which you are assigned.
So those two kindergarten ESOL teachers, you're part of the kindergarten team as well. The two assigned to first grade, second, third, fourth, and fifth grade, guess what, you're part of that grade-level PLC. You're meeting with a grade-level team every day for planning. You're meeting with your grade-level team once a month full day for collaborative planning. And you're also meeting as your own ESOL PLC.
How do we plan? What's the learning that's aligned to our school improvement plan that's going to help that ESOL teacher achieve that equitable ELD model that we envision for the school?
So we do a lot around professional learning for the ESOL teacher but a lot around building the capacity of the staff to understand how is it that I support ESOL students? What do I do for the newcomer? How do I support the student with interrupted formal education? How do I support the gifted and talented English learner? How can I accelerate what that student gets? Because not all ESOL students need. Some ESOL students need because they're ready to soar and we better figure it out.
So I have a continuum of needs that I'm expecting our ESOL teachers to inform us as to how we create equitable conditions for all of our ELs.
Why PLCs are such an important part of our school improvement plan
We have to first embrace the concept of a schoolwide professional learning community. And when I say PLC, I mean real PLC. I mean Dufour and Marzano, professional learning community where we shift the culture of the school so that teachers can, one of the characteristics of a PLC is open sharing of practice.
How do I then begin to create a safe space for teachers to feel like we are opening our practice so that we can create equally excellent classes across a grade level so that I have a second-grade team where I have seven teachers there, and in theory it wouldn't matter which teacher my student is assigned to? Teacher A's excellence is also evident with teacher B and teacher C and teacher D.
So you have to bring forth the professional learning community. Once you do that, your master schedule needs to be built to enable grade-level teams to have daily planning at the same time every day. The master schedule matters. We've done that.
Another big piece to create a school-wide PLC, I leverage Title 1 funds, I leverage school funds to pay for substitutes to enable full-day collaborative planning for all grade-level PLCs and also the ESOL PLC. That's a big funding commitment, which is why we have to be very meticulous about how we spend that time. We also use technology to open our practice. So we take Google Sites and we will create grade-level pages and an ESOL page where, for any grade level, I can see their rolling agendas, I can see the data they're collecting for all students on that grade level, I can see the grade-level weekly lesson plans.
It's wide open so that maybe I'm the third-grade teacher, but I saw that Miss Smith, let's say, in fourth grade, had something amazing, there was some amazing growth in reading. I want to be able to see what Miss Smith is doing. I can go right on the site, go into Miss Smith's weekly plans. I can look at what's happening. I can see what's going on with her kids and learn from that.
And then I come back to the principal and say, “Hey, you have some release time? I want to go and observe this practice because I figured, you know, I saw on this site that this is something I'm really interested in.” And so we're able to have teachers observe, peer observation. This is part of the key as well. But the master schedule, being able to have funding. You have to release professional learning communities to meet full day once a month.
That's heavy learning. But you also have to have systems and structures in place to make sure that that learning is productive and that the learning is around the same areas of improvement that have been identified in that school improvement plan. This is how you begin to move your school improvement engine.
Part II: Partnering with Indigenous Families
Communicating with indigenous families from Guatemala
Our Guatemalan students are bringing to us two additional languages, Mam and also K'iche'. So we have the challenge of meeting our family and community needs in two additional languages from Central America.
We’re also increasing our sensitivity because we’re realizing that families may report Spanish as their first language but when in fact the first language, a language in the home, happens to be Mam or K'iche'. And so we want to make sure that we understand accurately which language the students are speaking so we don’t over-identify and refer students for services that they really don’t need.
Using indigenous families' rituals for restorative healing
I have brought to the school Cara y Corazón. It means face and heart in Spanish. Cara y Corazón is a family-strengthening curriculum that was created by the National Compadres Network. I worked with National Compadres Network and actually brought that training when I was director in Montgomery County Public Schools. We trained in these restorative curricula that use indigenous practices to help the families heal.
In my role now as a principal, I was able to use federal funding to bring in the parent component of La Cultura Cura, which means, “Culture heals.” Cultura Cura has a family component, there’s a youth component, and there’s a counseling component. So I brought the family component called Cara y Corazón to my school. Cara y Corazón, the basic premise is this.
Within each culture’s indigenous practices, rituals, and traditions lies the medicine to bring about restorative healing to that community. And it is a series of 8 to 12 sessions that is built on this premise with helping the families reconnect to their indigenous practices to use that as medicine for healing. And we have used Cara y Corazón. We used some Title 1 funding to have training for staff.
My counselors train. My parent engagement assistant is trained. I trained some admin staff in that. And the whole idea is how can we then bring families into these sessions to help them heal. Last year we partnered with Casa because they have a location in our community where a lot of our families live. Their location is centrally right there.
And we partnered with CASA to use their facilities to bring this training so that our families don’t always have to come to the schoolhouse to get it. And so we are working very hard with our community partners, also with the staff who are trained, to make sure that we can offer this training to families, but it is a commitment to get them to stay on for the 8 to 12 sessions, but we are finding that families that do complete the training do restore and are very, very happy to have had the opportunity to reconnect with their families this way.
Part III: Social-Emotional Support for Immigrant Students
How we're supporting immigrant students' social-emotional health
So I'm looking to add an ESOL counselor that would have, in addition to the bilingual capabilities, specific training in helping with the whole social emotional trauma-informed counseling. And this is a strategy to bring in more supports because we are getting more newcomers.
We are seeing more of the trauma quite frankly that they may receive on their journey to the U.S., and that's often talked about, but what is often not talked about is they also have trauma in the household through no fault of their own, trauma that exists in their communities once they’re already settled here. There’s a lot of trauma that happens that does present barriers to learning that we have to mitigate.
So that wonderful station teaching you heard me talk about and the school-wide ELD model is for naught if we don't mitigate the barriers to learning, and by barriers to learning, I mean the trauma that they’re coming to school with. And it does have to be mitigated.
We also have a transforming neighborhood initiative in our school, and we have a community resource advocate in this school, and we have behavioral health sciences there that are Department of Health and Human Services resources that will work with the school to link families with critical resources.
So it can be food resources. It could be health. It could be counseling supports. It could be medical. So we are in partnership with DHHS and we are lucky to be one of the schools that has a TNI as they call it, Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative Program that helps us link quickly families that have complex needs immediately to county support. So it helps a lot. It helps.
The kinds of trauma our students are experiencing
65 percent of our students are U.S. born, but they’re living in households that very much have the immigrant experience. Okay? I have 35 percent of my students who are coming from different countries, most notably the Northern Triangle of Central America.
So whether they are U.S. born, they have the immigrant experience. Whether they're actually immigrant themselves, they’re going to have the immigrant experience. So what happens with many of our kids with that experience is that they are experiencing what happens with family reunification where you have family perhaps who are newly arrived to the U.S. Maybe a child is coming. Maybe another adult is coming into a situation where, "Wow, there’s a new family here with new siblings perhaps that I never knew existed."
And you can imagine some of the conflict that may ensue as a result of this family reunification phenomenon. I have students who are exposed also to many adverse conditions that are not of their own making, students who may be exposed to trauma evident in abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect.
You can see the physical manifestation. They can be very unsettled or kind of, you know, shaky or anxious. You can see the anger. You can see it come out in drawings that they make. Most notably, I see students who are exposed to things that typically children at this age are not exposed to.
And so you will find that manifested in their drawings and in their behaviors and in their language. The anti-immigrant sentiment that's happening, they see all of this and they bring that to school.
Dr. Karen Woodson is a retired Principal of a high-EL impact Title 1 elementary school. A veteran in public education with over 35 years of service as a teacher, instructional specialist and district wide EL Program Director, Dr. Woodson holds graduate degrees in Applied Linguistics and has taught a range of courses at the elementary and secondary levels, including reading, Spanish, English as a Foreign Language, and exploratory courses in Japanese, French, Italian and German. Dr. Woodson has also taught graduate courses in Applied Linguistics, English Grammar, Spanish, Foreign Language Teaching Methods and ESOL Teaching Methodology at several major universities in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.
An expert in second language acquisition and district level program administration, Dr. Woodson's current efforts focus on creating equitable conditions for English learners in schools, English learner centered school improvement strategies, and Baldrige guided strategic planning. Dr. Woodson is also the Founder of Leading for School Improvement, which specializes in EL-centered school improvement solutions for high-EL impact schools.